Does Constructivism have limits?


Kids know what they need, right?

Brynne Middaugh

Are children vulnerable beings, due to their need for help until they have developed, or are they better described as self-driven scientists who explore the world and develop as they explore on their own? This question makes it difficult for parents and teachers to decide how much freedom and structure to give them as they grow up and learn about the world. So, the questions then become, do children innately know what they need? Is it part of their starter set to explore and learn on their own? Are they able to learn necessities in order to be able to fully develop? Or do they need structure and guidance from parents, caregivers, teachers, and other expert figures to help them fully develop to their full potential? Each side of this debate provides answers to these questions. And while evidence shows that there is merit to both sides through several theories, it is important to choose one due to the possible consequences it may have on the learning and overall development of the child.

At any given stage, children seek stimulation and act on their environment just as much as their environment acts upon them (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 154). One side of the debate states that all humans come with a starter-set which guides their learning. Therefore, when children are provided a rich environment, parents or caregivers can let them go and explore themselves. This side of the debate is supported by Jean Piaget’s stage theory. He believed that “children’s thinking, at any age, reflects a unique way of interpreting the world…” and goes on to say that “development is more than just the simple acquisition of skills and knowledge” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 154). This note emphasizes the importance of a rich environment, which brings us to the critical question of why rich environments are so important for children’s development.

Rather than being passive and waiting for the environment to stimulate action, Piaget viewed developing humans as innately active beings, saying that they are “active initiators and seekers of stimulation” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 155). He continues in his theory to explain that children are not content with how little they currently know, which is what sparks their curiosity. While external rewards can be attractive to children, they are not necessary for children’s motivation to learn and expand their knowledge base. Children are intrinsically motivated (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 155). Therefore, children decide when to be actively engaged with their environment to learn more. Piaget says their constant desire for active engagement is what makes them responsible for their own development and growth.

Knowing this, it places more importance on the child’s development to have a rich environment where they are able to explore and learn on their own. Piaget believed that “cognition develops in a series of discrete stages, with children’s thinking at any particular stage being qualitatively different from that which preceded it and that which will follow it” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 154). Therefore, too much structure and restrictions from parents, caregivers, and teachers will inhibit them from fully learning, their starter-set will give them what they need to learn.

This brings us to the other side of the debate which states that while humans possess the ability to learn constructively through self-guided discovery, they will often just stay within their comfort zone. Children’s comfort zones are best explained through the concept of the Goldilocks effect. The Goldilocks effect is the concept that infants actively choose to take-in stimuli from their environment, and they often attend to stimuli that are “neither too simple nor too complex” indicating they like to stay just within their own comfort zone (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 105). This side of the debate is mainly supported by the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, and his sociocultural theory on development. He focused on how development is guided by adults and cultural context. He proposed that both the interaction between adults and children and the cultural context, which determines how, where, and when those social interactions take place, have a large overall effect on a child’s development (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 68-69). Vygotsky suggests that “cognitive development occurs in situations where a child’s problem solving is guided by an adult” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 69). Therefore, when left to their own devices, children’s cognitive growth does not become as well-rounded because they have not been encouraged by adults to seek more difficult learning and problem-solving situations.

Expanding more on Vygotsky’s theory, it has four connected levels of interaction with the children’s environment (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 69). The first level is ontogenetic development which refers to the development of the individual over their lifetime, the second level is microgenetic development which refers to changes over short periods of time, the third level is phylogenetic development which refers to changes over evolutionary time, and the fourth level is sociohistorical development which refers to “changes that have occurred, usually across prior generations, in one’s culture and the values, norms, and technologies that such a history has generated” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 69). While each level has its own characteristics, Vygotsky notes that it is important to remember that children are developing organisms who change in already changing environments, therefore, we cannot only look at the child, we must also look at the environment around the child.

While some may argue that children have the complete ability to learn on their own, many researchers debate that children need some kind of structure to push them out of their comfort zone so that they can learn more about the world. This side of the debate is best supported by more of Vygotsky’s theory so we need to learn more from his ideas. Vygotsky continues the explanation of his theory saying, “cognitive development progresses by the members of one generation collaborating with the members of another” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 69). It is important for children to have structure and expert help to get out of their comfort zone. They especially need help with being in the zone of proximal development. This zone is marked as the difference between what a child can do on their own and what the child can do with help from an adult or expert in the task (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). The adult can often help the child further develop within this optimal zone through the concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding occurs when the expert of the situation responds to the child’s responses to the situation accordingly and then shifts their learning to help maximize the child’s development and gradually increase their learning.

In an attempt to look at both sides of this debate on similar levels, we need to compare the concepts of antithesis and equilibrium. In the Vygotskian framework, the concept of antithesis describes the phenomena that tension is what motivates growth and development. Similarly, Piaget’s unique concept of equilibration explains children’s attempts to balance their cognitive schemes (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 157). When the child encounters a piece of information that does not fit with their existing knowledge, their schemes become unbalanced. Given that humans are natural pattern matchers and disequilibrium is displeasing to humans, the child feels the desire to re-establish the balance by adapting their schemes based on the new information. While both sides of this debate have merit at these levels, Piaget’s theory seems to fall short as he underestimates the importance of intervention during development. Vygotsky’s theory elegantly illustrates how much children’s cognitive skills can develop with the right kinds of social and cultural interactions.

Looking further into the implications of these theories, the stakeholders directly affected by this debate are teachers, parental or caregiver figures, and developmental psychologists. Teachers and parental figures need to know how much structure to implement in their classrooms in order to assure the well-being of the children’s overall development. While there is a time for unstructured play and exploration, children need guidance from adults using the zone of proximal development in order to fully develop to their potential. Developmental psychologists are still currently arguing over this debate and attempting to do additional research that might support it so they can accurately offer advice to parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures that will best support these developing children. In hopes of supporting these important stakeholders, while children can be curious and driven little scientists, they also need structure, guidance, and socio-cultural interaction to fully support their cognitive growth and development as they age.


Bjorklund, D.F. & Causey, K.B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences, sixth edition. SAGE Publications.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Cognitive Development Lecture [Unpublished manuscript]. Department of Psychology, Pacific University Oregon.